Charles Gordon & His Guns

purdey jones underlever
Most of Charles Gordon's guns and rifles were Dicksons, but he did order from other makers. This 16-bore Purdey with Jones underlever and 34-inch barrels was ordered in 1907—although Gordon went bankrupt before it could be delivered. Photo courtesy of Gavin Gardiner/Sotheby's

 

Click to purchase this back issue now!

This feature was originally published in the May/June 2008 issue of Shooting Sportsman which is available for purchase through our online store.

 

by DOUGLAS TATE

Two figures dressed nearly identically in tweed Knickerbocker suits and matching flat caps walked the Scottish hill. The older man’s clothes were of proper cut for a Victorian sporting gentleman, whereas the fellow with the leather dog lead and gun slip appeared to have slept in his outfit. The two long-legged black-and-tan dogs crisscrossing in front looked as if they had been designed to negotiate the wet, knee-high vegetation that extended to the horizon.

Abruptly, both dogs stopped and stared at the ground at a spot where the heather fell away to a burn below. With unhurried ease, the moor keeper unbuckled two straps and slipped his charge a brand new double- flint shotgun of a type that had not been made for 50 years. A brace of russet birds rose into the overcast with vocal protest. The old chap pointed his long-barreled fowler after them and said, “Bang, bang.” The unfired shotgun was restored to the leather slip, and both men began the long downward trek to a large turreted house in the far distance. Charles Gordon had just christened a new gun.

Halmyre, as it was called by the Gordon family, is set back from the Edinburgh-to-Moffat road in a flat valley created by a tributary of the Tweed. Originally a 16th Century mansion bought by William Gordon in 1808 for £16,000, it was handsomely rebuilt in the mid-1850s in the then-fashionable Scottish Baronial style. Distinguished by vertical proportions, it has a tower at one end balanced by two small turrets at the other separated by a steep, stepped gabled roof. Lancet windows in the turrets suggest the original semi- fortified house. Though destined to become Charles Gordon’s home and to house his fabulous gun collection, it was not the place of his birth.

Charles Ferrier Gordon was born in 1854 in Rochester, Kent, a town made famous by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers and lightly fictionalized as Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His father, Archibald Gordon, was an army surgeon who later became an inspector of hospitals and was awarded the Companion of the Bath, an order of high caliber just short of knighthood. Shortly after his birth, Charles Gordon’s mother died. Then his father left for the Crimea to attend the wounded in one of Queen Victoria’s little wars. Young Charles was sent to Halmyre, in the Scottish Borders, to be raised by an aunt and uncle.

Gordon’s adopted parents both died when the boy was a vulnerable pre-pubescent, but he was well provided for, with the condition that he would not come into his full inheritance until he was 31. Gordon attended university, but he never worked in the modern sense of the word. His stated occupation was “proprietor” and he appears to have spent most of his life at Halmyre. At 21 Gordon bought a conventional breechloading centerfire gun (Serial Number 2770) from John Dickson & Son, located less than 20 miles away on Princes Street, in Edinburgh.

Other purchases followed. In 1879 Gordon ordered a muzzleloading rifle and two shotguns, and then in 1881 five double rifles and two shotguns. The following year Dickson’s introduced its famous round-action hammerless breechloader, but Gordon bought four muzzleloading rifles—one with an extra set of 12-bore shotgun barrels— and one muzzleloading shotgun. He did buy three breechloading shotguns, but none appear to have been on the Dickson patent. In 1884, when he came into his full inheritance, Gordon started collecting in earnest, ordering guns in profusion. Most were out-of-period muzzleloaders. If the men in Dickson’s gunroom thought him odd, they held their peace, for Charles Gordon was, resolutely, their greatest client of all time. Some even have suggested that Dickson’s would have gone broke without him.

dickson percussion fowler
This 8-bore percussion fowler was built for Gordon by John Dickson & Son in 1883. The hammers with removable noses, typical of early percussion guns, certainly would have appealed to Gordon's sense of nostalgia. Photo courtesy of Andrew Orr/Holt's Auctioneers

Writing in Classic Sporting Rifles, Chris Austyn, a man who has seen more Gordon guns than most, said: “The quantity and nature of the orders is extraordinary, and it is very clear that Charles Gordon was easily Dickson’s most important and frequent customer....

“His first order was made in 1875, and it is estimated that, subsequently, something in the region of three hundred guns of various types were built for him by Dickson’s in the period [1875 - 1904] described.”

Nigel Brown in British Gunmakers, Volume Two—Birmingham, Scotland & the Regions is more precise: “Dickson’s built no less than 225 guns, rifles and pistols for him, many of them muzzleloaders.”

According to Geoffrey Boothroyd: “Subsequently [after 1875], a bewildering succession of guns, rifles and pistols entered the gunroom of Charles Gordon on The Borders. Pinfires, percussion guns and flintlocks were made for this eccentric collector in marvelous profusion. During the 1880s he bought, on average, about 12 guns and rifles a year. In 1892 he bought a pair of flintlock pistols of 32 bore inlaid in gold and stocked to the muzzle. None of these guns were ever fired by him, so many have survived in pristine condition.”

Gordon also bought out-of-period firearms from other Edinburgh makers such as Joseph Harkom, Alexander Henry and T.E. Mortimer & Sons as well as from James Purdey & Sons, in London, but the most frequently encountered today are undoubtedly the guns he ordered from Dickson’s. Typically they are cased, often in huge wooden trunk cases lined with coral-colored pigskin and filled with every imaginable accessory and accoutrement.

dickson fowler cased
The cased 8-bore percussion fowler built for Gordon by John Dickson & Son in 1883. Many of his orders included elaborate French-fitted cases with all manner of accoutrement. Photo courtesy of Andrew Orr/Holt's Auctioneers.

When they first open such a case, the uninitiated often imagine that they have discovered the holy grail of firearms. After all, here is a pair of seemingly ancient firearms by a highly desirable maker cased with tools and everything in the same condition it was the day it left Dickson’s workshop. The difficulty is that many collectors desire period firearms. A cased Dickson from 1882 in original condition is a wonderful thing if it is a round-action, and a cased flintlock in original condition is marvelous if it dates from the Georgian period, when Joseph Manton made the finest firearms in the world. However, the guns that Dickson’s made for Gordon have, for some, a strange, not-quite-right retro look about them. The aesthetic of a Gordon flintlock as it relates to a genuine period firearm like a Manton is analogous to an Excalibur SS as it relates to a Mercedes SSK—that is to say inaccurate, incorrect and ultimately unsatisfying to the purist collector.

One American dealer I spoke with said, “The lines are wrong. [Dickson’s] forgot what they were supposed to look like. They’re too fat through the breech and thin where they ought to be fat.” He ultimately condemned them as an “absolute abomination.” Most of us likely would not go this far, but might acknowledge that the lines of the guns are bad but the quality good.

Others have a different perspective. I phoned the man who has the largest collection of Gordon Dicksons and asked whether he thought the dealer’s criticisms were valid. “Regarding the timing,” he said, “with percussion guns made into the 1850s, maybe 1860s, and these guns being started in the late 1870s through 1900, there were certainly craftsmen left in the Dickson factory who were very able to build the best percussion guns. There’s no question the guns are built out of period, but they’re great sources of true-to-period design and function that are usually in mint condition and real showcases for the design and workmanship. This Dickson I’m looking at—one of a pair I’ve just put together—is a 6-pound 5-ounce 16-gauge, an absolutely new unfired gun, and I would put it up against anything for fit and finish, the design of any percussion gun made at any period of time. This just is a ‘best’ gun and no apologies. It’s not thick where it’s supposed to be thin and not thin where it’s supposed to be thick; it’s just perfect. It has brilliant wood with great layout and subtle, lovely figure. So I don’t buy them being an abomination; that’s a huge mis- characterization of these guns.”

Gavin Gardiner, formerly of Sotheby’s auction house, in London, had this to say: “Charles Gordon. Always an interesting one .... The guns are always very best quality, as he was obviously a picky character and only ordered from the very best makers. Dickson’s, of course, is the most famous by far and built a lot of guns for him, but I have seen guns by other makers as well. I sold a Purdey hammergun last year that was a Gordon gun—a 16- bore hammergun with 34-inch barrels that was ordered in 1907. He went bankrupt before the gun was finished. It sat around at Purdey’s for years, and it was not completed until the 1980s.

“The guns he ordered all have their quirks and odd features and are always very desirable nonetheless. Perhaps more so because of this. They are lovely things, pure and simple.

“Do they compare with a period-correct best flintlock Manton? Not really. There always will be a certain magic to those early guns because of what they represent: Manton’s standing as a maker and innovator and the period when they were built. They are true icons of design, classics of their type. The Gordon guns are built to an earlier style but have a different appeal.”

Throughout the 1880s and ’90s Gordon continued buying strange long-barreled, old-fashioned firearms in great numbers. In order to pay for them he appears to have sold inherited property in a very desirable location of Edinburgh: “On Corstorphine Hill Estate which was feued in 1886 by the owner Charles Ferrier Gordon of Halmyre.” (The Scots have a different vocabulary when it comes to legal terms, and feued apparently means property sold subject to the covenants affecting it.)

By 1908 Gordon seems to have wound down his obsessive acquisition habit. He wrote his last will and testament, leaving all of his “lands, estates and everything moveable” to Elanore Gordon Cumming. But it was not to be. Just four years later “Charles Ferrier Gordon’s curator bonis sold Halmyre by public roup [auction] for £12,000 to Misses Alice, Magdalene and Isabella Gordon.” (In Scotland a curator bonis is someone who takes responsibility for the affairs, usually financial, of someone who is legally incapable of managing them themselves—typically someone not of sound mind.) The three women were Gordon’s half-sisters from his father’s second marriage.

Were he alive today, Gordon would be a likely subject for one of those psychology daytime TV shows, his collection viewed as compensation for the loss of not one but two sets of parents before he was 15. During the Victorian era he was seen simply as an eccentric. In any event his half-sisters appear to have allowed him to live on at Halmyre, where, according to his obituary in The Scotsman, he died of heart failure in 1918.

Today the gunroom at Halmyre is empty, all traces of the Gordon family gone. The only reminder of the eccentric Charles Ferrier Gordon is a lone muzzleloading cannon standing by the main door.

Author’s Note: I am indebted to Michael Clarkson of M.C. Services, in St. Boswells, Roxburghshire, Scotland, for much of the information featured in this article.

Editor’s Note: Scottish Author Donald Dallas recently completed a book titled Charles Gordon, Magnificent Madness, which is due out in the near future. In it Dallas has listed all of the known guns, rifles and pistols bought by Gordon, but he remains interested in details about Gordon and pictures of his guns. If you have additional information, please e- mail Dallas at Balyarow@aol.com.

Douglas Tate is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.

 


Written By
More from Douglas Tate

Bertuzzi Is Back

Dazzling innovation is an axiom of fine Italian gunmaking. Even so, the...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *